ERISA administering and funding

You already know that many ERISA plans contain discretionary language, which calls for a court to review the ERISA claim denial under an abuse of discretion standard.

But many times a structural “conflict of interest” can occur where the plan administrator has the “dual role” of administering and funding the plan benefit. Courts typically look for evidence that the structural conflict actually affected the claim handling, which can affect the scrutiny of review.

One well-known and easy way to inoculate the effect of structural conflicts of interest is to use “independent peer reviewers.”

Here’s the case of Green v. Life Insurance Company of North America (LINA), ___ Fed. Appx. __ (10th Cir. September 26, 2018) that highlights the point.

FACTS: In December 2014, Green, a tractor-trailer operator experienced “cloudy and foggy vision” and sought medical treatment. Three unsuccessful surgeries resulted in permanent loss of vision, rendering him unable to work as a truck driver. Green sought ERISA-governed disability benefits, administered and funded by LINA. The ERISA plan contained discretionary language.

LINA denied the claim, concluding Green’s condition was a pre-existing condition: the posterior vitreous detachment Green experienced in December 2014 likely caused a retinal tear and eventual detachment in 2015. Green sued to recover benefits.

ISSUE: Whether the structural conflict of interest affected the claim?

HELD: The structural conflict of interest was properly addressed by LINA.

  1. “LINA properly dealt with its conflict of interest in its dual capacity role by twice referring Mr. Green’s case to independent medical reviewers.” Op. at 6.
  2. LINA made a reasonable and good faith determination that Mr. Green had a pre-existing condition…that caused or substantially contributed to his vision loss….LINA relied on five doctors’ opinions, two of whom were Mr. Green’s own doctors, and all of whom agreed….” Op. at 7.